Daily Beast, by Michael Weiss, August 23, 2015:
Proof, if it were needed, for how valued this cooperation is among U.S. policymakers came in the conspicuous absence of Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, from sanctions levied by the Treasury Department against Russian officials. The sanctions targeted bureaucrats involved in both the invasion and occupation of Crimea and the unacknowledged maskirovka war that Moscow is still waging in eastern Ukraine—a war that has drawn amply on the resources of the FSB and has included several “former” FSB officers in on the battlefield. Not only was Bortnikov not sanctioned, he was invited by the White House last February as a guest to President Obama’s three-day conference on “countering violent extremism,” whereas the current FBI director, James Comey, was not.
That conference was held principally because of the international threat posed byISIS and the coalition war against it in Syria and Iraq, not to mention the Chechen identity of the Tsarnaev brothers, perpetrators of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings. Bortnikov’s presence was a mutual recognition by the U.S. and Russia that fighting jihadism is a shared challenge between two countries now embroiled in a pitched stand-off over the fate of Europe and much else.
Yet a recent investigation conducted by Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent newspapers left in Russia, complicates this cozy tale of counterterrorist cooperation. Based on extensive fieldwork in one village in the North Caucasus, reporter Elena Milashina has concluded that the “Russian special services have controlled” the flow of jihadists into Syria, where they have lately joined up not only with ISIS but other radical Islamist factions. In other words, Russian officials are added to the ranks of terrorists which the Russian government has deemed a collective threat to the security and longevity of its dictatorial ally on the Mediterranean, Bashar al-Assad.
It may sound paradoxical—helping the enemy of your friend—but the logic is actually straightforward: Better the terrorists go abroad and fight in Syria than blow things up in Russia. Penetrating and coopting terrorism also has a long, well-attested history in the annals of Chekist tradecraft.
Milashina makes her case study the village of Novosasitili in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district. Since 2011, nearly one percent of the total population of Novosasitili has gone to Syria—22 out of 2,500 residents. Of that figure, five were killed and five have returned home. But they didn’t leave Russia, a country notoriously difficult to enter and exit, without outside help. The FSB established a “green corridor” to allow them to migrate first to Turkey, and then into Syria. (Russians, including those living in the North Caucasus, can catch any of the daily non-stop flights to Istanbul and visit Turkey without a visa.)
“I know someone who has been at war for 15 years,” Akhyad Abdullaev, head of the village, tells Milashina. “He fought in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Syria. He surely cannot live peacefully. If such people go off to war, it’s no loss. In our village there is a person, a negotiator. He, together with the FSB, brought several leaders out of the underground and sent them off abroad on jihad. The underground resistance has been weakened, we’re well off. They want to fight—let them fight, just not here.”
Milashina next interviews the “negotiator” Abdullaev mentions. He tells her of his role as an intermediary between the FSB and local militants in arranging the latter’s departure to the Levant. In 2012, for instance, he helped arrange for a man known as the “Emir of the northern sector”—a “very dangerous man,” believed by the FSB to have been behind several terrorist bombings—to go to Turkey if he agreed to quit jihadism in Dagestan. The FSB gave the Emir a passport and acted as his travel agent. The condition was that he’d deal exclusively with the FSB and not inform any of his confederates of his true sponsor. The Emir has since been killed in Syria, but the “negotiator” tells the journalist that he’s subsequently brought another five militants to the FSB who benefited from the same quid pro quo arrangement. “This was in 2012,” he says. “Just before the Syrian path opened up. More precisely, [the FSB] opened it.”
Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast that while she can neither confirm nor deny the allegations put forward in Novaya Gazeta, “It is also evident that [Russian] law enforcement and security agencies are proud of the fact that the number of casualties in armed clashes between insurgent forces and security has declined very significantly by some 50 percent. Officials attribute it to the success of the government in fighting the insurgency; in reality, it seems the drop derives from the fact that all the aggressive, competent fighters are no longer fighting in Dagestan but are in Syria as part of ISIS.”
Mike Rogers, a former U.S. representative and the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told The Daily Beast that the FSB might be turning a “blind eye” to jihadist outflow to Syria. “The only reason I say that is that they could alert Assad’s folks to get them once they’re in Syria,” Rogers said. “But for me, the idea of getting them out of town doesn’t make sense because they know they get combat training and come back home.”
However, a former CIA operative who has liaised with the FSB in Tajikistan told The Daily Beast that such concerns wouldn’t necessarily stop a clandestine conveyor belt of extremists out of Russia, which is hardly unique to Putin’s regime. “It’s perfectly conceivable that the FSB would take their most violent types and say, ‘Yeah, you want your caliphate? Go set it up in Raqqa.’ The Saudis did this in the 80s with the Afghans. It’s sort of tried and true. We could do the same thing. Of course, we’re not.”